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The Whispers Of Darkness
by Darrell Whitney


A Legend of Dezolis

"Therefore, for your services in freeing the Corona Tower from the hordes of the Dark One, and for your heroism in standing against the usurper Lassic when none other could, the people of Dezolis hereby offer their deepest thanks, and to symbolize that present you with this."

Alis Landale, Queen Alisa III of Palma and the Algolian Colonies, bent her head as the Dezorian--no, Dezolian, she really must learn to pronounce it correctly--envoy held up the medallion. The tall, green-skinned priest slipped the red ribbon over her neck, so that the disk of smooth blue stone fell into place on her chest. Alis touched it gently with her fingertips, tracing the outline of the native ideograph for "heroism." Despite the warm afternoon, the stone felt cool, almost cold to the touch, like the outside of a glass of iced beverage though it did not attract condensation.

"I am honored, High Priest Ngangbius, both by the esteem of your people and by the fact that you personally came here to Palma to deliver it. This is an extraordinary tribute, and I only wish I could be worthy of it."

They exchanged further politenesses, Alis demurring while Ngangbius praised her, all the while audivid cams recording the presentation and newspaper reporters taking notes for the stories they'd write for the benefit of the parts of Palma the Restoration had not yet brought the media networks back to. The queen didn't actually get to ask about the medallion until the reception held after the ceremony.

"I'm surprised," she said, when she managed to extricate the High Priest and herself from their hangers-on, "that the Church would send the Hero of Corona all the way to Palma as an emissary."

Ngangbius chuckled at the use of his rather pompous epithet.

"Oh, there are many reasons for that, Your Majesty."

"Watch it, Ngangbius. If you don't call me Alis, I'll be forced to call you--oh, what is it?--Your Eminence all night."

"A truly terrible fate. It shall be Alis, then."

The seventeen-year-old queen grinned.

"And to answer your curiosity, since it was our...historic...exchange of the Eclipse Torch for the Amber Eye that paved the way for our victories over evil, it was considered only appropriate that I be the one sent. Likewise, it was felt that given my, shall we say, accepting attitude towards Palmans I would be more comfortable than others among a planet full of you."

"I may be new to politics, Ngangbius, but even I can spot a world of hidden meanings there."

"Undoubtedly it is only my accent, brought on by my imperfect mastery of your language. I could not possibly be implying that the arch-conservative faction within the Church would be happy to see any number of accidents befall me due to the inherent dangers of interplanetary travel, nor that my absence from religious councils while I am here could give my enemies momentum therein."

"Oh, yes, Palman can be very difficult. I'm sure you didn't mean to imply any of that. Is it that you don't loathe and despise we Palman 'invaders' that bothers them so much?"

He shook his head.

"Oh, no. They would oppose me for that, but they will detest me forever for giving the most holy relic of our faith into the hands of an alien infidel."

"I gave it back," Alis pointed out. "I wouldn't have taken it in the first place if I'd known how priceless it was."

"Exactly. I not only gave it to you, but I went and blew snow in your eyes so that you would take it. The fact that my actions ultimately assisted both our peoples to triumph over evil is not considered sufficient reason."

"Idiots," Alis decided.

"Do not judge them too harshly," the priest said. "They possess deep and abiding faith. Unfortunately, this clouds their minds to the value of change. However, they act as a vital balance against those who would abandon in an instant wise and long-established traditions for perceived progress." He smiled broadly. "We are all imperfect, but by balancing our imperfections against those of others, we can keep our institutions in harmony with Heaven's will, even as we seek it as individuals."

"I don't see how you can be that calm."

"It keeps my blood pressure down," Ngangbius said with a shrug. "One must keep a cool head."

"That reminds me; speaking of staying cool, I was wondering about this medallion. It actually seems cold to the touch, and it doesn't warm up, even when I hold it. Why is that?"

"That stone is called frost jade for that very reason. It is very rare on Dezolis and highly prized as a symbol of fidelity and courage."

"Really? How come?"

Ngangbius smiled.

"Well, as to that, there is a story--apocryphal, no doubt, but if you would care to hear it..."

Alis returned his smile.

"Well, let's see. Shall we return to the collection of toadies and political sycophants, or shall we old friends of the glorious rebellion against the Usurper Lassic remain in conference as I honor the envoy of the Dezolian Church with the Royal Presence?"

Ngangbius laughed heartily.

"I do believe you are learning quickly, Alis."

* * * * *

The story (Ngangbius began) is from over a thousand years ago, during what our historians call the Feudal Age. Then, Dezolis was not unified under the peaceful rule of the Church but endured under the hereditary reign of various warlords and petty nobles. Some of these were fair and just, others cruel tyrants. Spellcraft and sword-art, rather than wisdom and learning, ruled the day.

During that time the grandest city on Dezolis was Arcant. Centuries later its razing would signal the end of the Feudal Age, as the people rose up against the horrors perpetrated in its prisons, but it was a thriving town at the time of this story. In Arcant lived a young man of twenty-five named Jeran, of the noble House Markade. He was bold, upright, and skilled at arms, a knight I believe you would call it in your language.

Jeran, as young men will, happened to fall in love with a pretty maiden his age. Her name was Rela, and she was the daughter of House T'Kan. There seemed no impediment to their love; neither age, nor obligation, nor social disparity stood in their way.

However, Fortune was not with the young lovers. It came to pass that at court, Jeran's uncle did inadvertently give insult to Rela's mother. History does not recall the specific nature of this insult, only that the giver was a brash warrior more suited to the battleground than the palace but too proud to let another speak for him, while the receiver was a woman of high temper, quarrelsome, who clung to her social rank with desperate passion for she had little else in her life worth clinging to. Thus both were guilty of letting hot words and hot blood overcome cool hearts, and they found themselves in a duel of honor.

Now, Rela's mother was a famous duelist, but Jeran's uncle was a warrior, and he fought as one. Ignoring the formalities of the dueling circle, he faced her not sword-to-sword but with bladecatcher and war-mace, with blows of hands and feet as well as the blade, for he had learned battle in a school where victory was all, lest one's enemies overrun one's home, and in this way he left his opponent dead upon the snow.

House T'Kan at once cried foul, and for the dishonorable violations of court protocol and the customs of the duel called blood-feud on House Markade. House Markade returned their ire in equal measure, claiming that Rela's mother had attempted to play treacherous word-games to gain advantage over House Markade and her family was compounding this dishonor by protesting when they received the just rewards of their craven deceit.

Such was life in those violent and warlike times. For the next several months, the principals and retainers of House Markade and House T'Kan waged what amounted to open war in the streets of Arcant. Jeran himself was caught up in a number of battles, and it was only through great effort that he kept from killing any member of Rela's family.

This state of events deeply troubled the young lovers, for although they were not without family loyalty they deeply cared for one another and Heaven blessed them so that this love outweighed the anger and violence in their hearts. Despite the bitter denunciations of their elders they arranged secret meetings, and at last resolved to flee the city together, to be married in some distant district where neither of their families had influence. As a skilled fighter, Jeran knew there would always be work for him in some local warlord's troops, and in this way they could build a new life.

When the appointed day came, their plan initially went off without a hitch. Rela arranged to go out on a shopping trip, escorted of course, and the lovers managed to distract the escort by toppling two racks of clothing in the shop and embroiling them in an argument with the merchant and several other shoppers alike. While a veritable riot broke out, Jeran and Rela slipped away and were out the northern city gates in a twinkling.

Things did not end there, of course, or else the story would not have passed into legend. It so happened that one of Rela's bodyguards was more attentive to his duty than some of the others, and although unable to extricate himself from the chaos observed the lovers slipping away and reported this to his master. Rela's father did not hesitate, but charged out of town in pursuit at once, taking with him only a small party.

These events did not long escape the attention of the spies of House Markade. Unwilling to abandon his son to the soldiers of House T'Kan and wishing to chastise him for his errors, the head of that House gathered an armed warband and set off in pursuit.

Realizing that they might well be followed, Jeran and Rela had chosen a course north into the hills of the Great Claw Ridge. As an experienced traveler, Jeran knew the ways of the mountains well, and although a court-maiden rather than a fighter Rela, too, was fond of wilderness travel and life. They hoped to be able to evade their near-inevitable pursuit and set out on their new life while their families floundered about, unable to tell where they had gone.

Even today, the mountains of Dezolis are dangerous places. Harsh terrain and a numbing cold even we Dezolians find hazardous are a constant threat, and beyond that there are creatures strange and terrible. Jeran knew these hazards well, and was able to steer clear of natural and monstrous danger alike, but the pursuers had no such knowledge.

Thus it was when the master of House T'Kan emerged into a small, flat plain, his party had already lost two lives when a crust of ice that had made a ledge seem wider than it was had cracked under their weight. That natural tragedy, however, quickly paled next to the unnatural one that unfolded.

Jeran and Rela had not crossed the plain but instead skirted the edge and continued their ascent. Rela's father, however, did not do this but seeing the broad, open way instead of the tortuous path they'd been following immediately set out straight across.

There was no warning, no rumbling or shaking of snow, no telltale noise before the attack. Death in the Dezolian mountains is a stealer-in who does not announce his presence before he strikes. The first indication they had of danger was when the giant form exploded from beneath the ground and struck out.

The creature was a frostman, a ten-foot being seemingly hewn from living ice crystal, colored the deep blue of a twilight sky. Even as it emerged from its lurking slumber, this leftover creation of black magic snapped a soldier's neck with a blow from the edge of its hand.

House T'Kan's bravos were not cowards by any means. Faced with this threat, they reached for their weapons: swords and war-spears, cut-axes and maces. These blades did but little damage to the crystal-hard body of the frostman, however, striking tiny chips and gouges out of its limbs and torso but doing little real damage. The same could not be said for the creature, which struck titanic blows that broke limbs, crushed ribs, and quickly left two more men dead on the ground.

Realizing they had no chance of defeating the monster, Rela's father ordered his battered group to retreat. The frostman pursued, moving easily over the snow despite its size and strength. Finding the paths out of the clearing cut off by the creature's speed, the warriors took shelter in a cave in the cliff face. Unfortunately, they found that the cave was a dead end.

Meanwhile, Jeran and Rela had watched the struggle unfold from the ascending path. At first Jeran had hoped the frostman would delay pursuit, but as it quickly became obvious that House T'Kan's party was hopelessly outmatched his emotions changed. He saw men being killed, fellow Dezolian warriors dying needlessly, family whom Rela loved and whose deaths would cause her grief. Her own father!

The young warrior found himself charging pell-mell down the slope as fast--faster, even--as he safely could. He drew his silver longsword as the frostman herded the men of House T'Kan into the cave, and dropped from the rock shelf to block the cave mouth. The impact drove Jeran to his knees, but the soft snow prevented any serious injury, and he lunged upwards. The enchanted blade slashed crystal flesh, cutting a gash from which a clear blue, gelatinous ichor wept.

The frostman keened in a voice like the rumble of an avalanche and struck out at the first man to harm it. In his exposed position, Jeran was knocked onto his back by a powerful blow, but then Rela was there beside him, helping him get to his feet before the monster could follow up with another strike. Instead it was Jeran who lashed out again, cutting a deep gouge across the monster's chest.

With another pain-wracked bellow, the frostman opened its mouth wide, and it spewed forth a hail of inutterable cold and rime. The murderous breath swept over the young couple, and when it had passed there remained what looked for all the world like two statues, sheathed over in deep blue frost.

The monster the turned its attention to its original victims, who had seen hope rise, then as suddenly fade to despair. Yet, though the young couple was frozen and unable to act, still they thwarted its progress. The cave mouth was narrow, and the statue-bodies of Jeran and Rela blocked the crystal giant's passage. Indeed, they did a better job of sealing the way than they had when alive. Flesh is soft and yielding; it can be torn or broken or thrust aside. Cold stone was not. For an hour it beat upon the two, struck them, shoved at them, but had no more effect than the weapons of House T'Kan had had upon it, chipping and gouging the frozen shells only. The frostman was still at its work when the warband of House Markade caught up at last. With them was a wizard, who at once lashed the monster with magic fire. This not only did grave injury, but burnt through its frozen shell, leaving the frostman vulnerable to the swords and maces of the soldiers.

At first the warriors of House Markade were moved to put an end to the smaller and battle-weakened party of their enemy, but this did not last. They could see how Jeran and Rela had stood together, surrendering their lives in defense of House T'Kan's group, and despite his anger Jeran's father could not bring himself to shame his son's sacrifice. Likewise, Rela's father saw this sacrifice of the prince of House Markade in their defense as balancing the scales of honor--a life given for a life taken.

Stretchers were fashioned, and the two bodies were brought back to Arcant. With painstaking effort, the crystal sheathing was chipped away, for the morticians found it did not melt under the application of even searing heat. Were this a fairy-tale, once they were freed Jeran and Rela would have been found still alive beneath, and ushered in the generations of peace between their families with their marriage, but such was not the case, and at last their bodies were sent to lie in the great Guaron Morgue, crypt in those years of Arcant's noble dead.

The pieces of blue frost in which they had been frozen, pieces that seemed more like stone than ice crystals, were taken by the two families and fashioned into various amulets and jewelry, and it is said that they endure to this day, symbols of courage and of an honor not concerned with touchy points of pride and etiquette but with giving one's all to protect those one loves. On Dezolis, "frost jade" is never bought or sold, only earned.

Of course, this is only a legend, passed down for centuries, and who can say if it is true? Why, it is as improbable as...as a teenaged girl overthrowing an evil wizard-king and his demon master, would you not agree?

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